The first thing you notice in Sweden is that you're wa-a-a-ay up north -- minutes shy of Latitude 60 according to signs at Stockholm Airport. That's 1,800 miles from the North Pole, deep in the land of the midnight sun where daylight runs from noon to noon in the summer.
The climate is just as extreme in winter when it's dark all day, putting a damper on population expansion. Stockholm is a busy enough place but extending out into the Baltic Sea from the city is a string of largely uninhabited islands called the Stockholm Archipelago, which are beautiful, remote and highly reminiscent of the rocky islands off the Maine coast, only emptier.
Swedes, Germans, Latvians, Russians, Estonians, Finns and Norwegians swarm around the archipelago's 22,000 islands in summer in all sorts of boats, creating a colorful scene on a bright day. And generally days are bright. Unlike Maine, fog is rare.
There are other significant differences. "The water here is almost fresh, and there is no tide," said fishing guide Fredrik Sjoblom as we sped out from Sandhamn Island in his 20-foot skiff, bound for an island 20 minutes away along whose grassy banks he hoped to find hungry pike. "The Baltic is small, and the entrance to the ocean is narrow, so salt water hardly gets in. You can actually drink the water."
I dipped a finger into the clear, 57-degree Baltic and licked it clean. Fresh it was. And, to hear Sjoblom tell it, loaded with fish.
In autumn, early winter and again in early spring he and his clients wear survival suits to stay warm and safe in his open boat. They fish for salmon and trout in shallow water in the cold months, small bass of some sort in late spring and big pike all summer. Even in July and August he wears a life jacket and encourages clients to do likewise. The water never is warm enough to comfortably swim in.
I was curious to find out what sort of pike we'd catch in this strange, nearly freshwater sea. It didn't take long to find out. We rigged up large swimming plugs and began casting toward the shallows ringing small islands. Nothing bit at the first stop, but a few hundred yards away Sjoblom cut the outboard again and directed a cast toward a rocky shoal visible beneath the surface.
The water erupted in spray, and he was fast to a great log of a fish, which he fought expertly to the boat and hoisted in. "So this is a Swedish pike," I thought. It had the long, flat, prehistoric snout and spiny teeth of the great northern pikes we occasionally catch in lakes around Maryland and Virginia, but the color was wrong -- a greenish-gold rather than silver.
"That's no pike," I exclaimed. "That's a pickerel!"
Indeed, it had all the markings of the pickerel we find in tidal rivers around Chesapeake Bay in winter (though they've been scarce here the last 10 or 15 years). The big difference was its size. A 12- or 14-inch pickerel is a good one at home; in Sweden, Sjoblom said, it's not unheard of to catch one a meter long and 20 pounds in weight.
His first fish was only three pounds or so. He eased it back in the water, and it sped off with a flip of its tail. The Swedes have the same attitude about eating these fish as we do back home -- too bony to bother with. "The only people who eat pike here are little old ladies who live out in the archipelago," said Sjoblom. "They have a way of working around the bones."
I mentioned to Sjoblom that I liked fishing with jigs, and his eyes lit. "I have just the thing for you," he said, digging a soft plastic yellow perch imitation out of his tackle box. "I can't tell you all the pike I've caught on these."
While he and the third member of our party, Briton Stuart Alexander, worked away with plugs, I tossed the perch imitation out and slowly jigged it back to the boat. I got the fright of my life. Just three feet out, as I was preparing to bring the lure aboard, a great green behemoth came roaring up from the depths, smashed-and-grabbed and did a U-turn, bound for the bottom with my lure. Sjoblom saw it all and was as aghast as I.
"That's a big one, maybe 10 kilos!" he shouted as I felt the great fish tugging and my rod bent double. At such times even an experienced angler may freeze. I know now I should have reared back and set the hook hard, but I was afraid if I did I'd yank it out. So I just hung on, and naturally the huge fish zigged, zagged and let go. Gone.
It was Alexander, the least experienced angler in our trio, who wound up catching the biggest pike of the day, a five-pounder and a seven-pounder, both of which whacked his plug with conviction and wouldn't let go. We only had a couple of hours to fish, being needed back on shore for a press gathering at noon, but in those two hours we boated and released 13 pike/pickerel in all, every one bigger than any I'd ever caught back home.
It was quite a morning.
Sandhamn is at the outer edge of the Stockholm Archipelago, an hour's ferry ride from the city. With a year-round population of 300 and a summer population 10 times that, with a hotel and several excellent restaurants, it's worth a visit for anyone touring Scandinavia.
Almost everyone in Sweden speaks English. Sjoblom's Sandhamn Guide Service has fishing and touring boats available. Check the Web site at www.sandhamnsguiderna.com (unfortunately, it's in Swedish) or phone 011468-640-8040.